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Another Plane Hits the Sea, but Aircraft Are Still Safe

More terrible aviation news: A passenger jet carrying 153 souls has crashed into the sea in the Indian Ocean. According to press reports, the flight was a Yemenia Airbus A310 flying out of Yemen into the island of Comoros. It was attempting a landing on the island in windy weather, and appears to have come down some nine miles off the coast. Amazingly, authorities say they've rescued a five year-old child from the ocean, but all 152 other passengers and crew have apparently perished. Coming hard on the heels of the Brazilian Air France crash where 228 people died, the news demonstrates exactly how tricky it is to keep an aircraft in the air. Which begs the question: Why, in the 21st Century, do aircraft keep plummeting out of the sky?

Flying is Difficult
That old saying "If God had meant us to fly he'd have given us wings!" is worth remembering. Flying's not easy, particularly when you've got hundreds of tons of metal whizzing through the air, powered by sophisticated jet engines and computers, subject to the whims and fancies of the globe's weather patterns, and with fallible human beings at the controls.

This breakdown of 1,800 crashes between 1950 and 2006 shows exactly what's at fault:

  • Pilot Error 53%
  • Mechanical Failure 21%
  • Weather 11%
  • Other Human Error (e.g. lack of communication, improper maintenance etc) 8%
  • Sabotage and Terrorism 6%
  • Other Causes 1%

Pilot error and mechanical failure are particularly important during the two most critical points of a flight: take-off and landing. It's at these times, when the aircraft is close to the ground and experiencing some of its greatest structural loads, generally flying slowly and contending with weather effects like crosswinds, that the most accidents occur. Pilots are, after all, people who make mistakes just like the rest of us—even with a cockpit full of advanced equipment that's designed to help them fly and work out what's going wrong if something is amiss.

Aircraft are Complicated
The Wright Brothers' aircraft was complicated, but it's better to think of today's advanced airliners as among the most sophisticated machines ever built. Just designing them takes materials science, advanced aerodynamics, semiconductor design, crystallography and fluid dynamics to name but a few. An airliner consists of literally millions of individual parts that have to work as a cohesive whole. And each one of those parts is vital.

This fact has been demonstrated ably by Boeing's Dreamliner project. It's going to be one of the world's most advanced airliners when it goes into service, but just last week Boeing admitted that while testing a full-scale prototype, it has discovered a serious design flaw in the wing box. It seems that even with Boeing's vast experience this section has a built-in weakness when the wings are flexed, and it needs a work-over.

The Weather is a Formidable Adversary
Every time an aircraft takes to the sky its pilots and its systems have to deal with the incredible unpredictability of the weather. That's made more complicated with the global reach of modern airliners—take-off may be under blue skies, but en route the plane may encounter a lightning storm and may very well be landing in a blizzard. For the most part, radar and good weather prediction can help an aircraft circumvent the most difficult weather during a flight, but entirely unpredictable events like wind shear or microbursts can still affect it.

Check out this video of an aircraft trying to land at Lisbon's Portela airport—it's a site famous for vicious crosswinds.

In this clip the pilot skillfully aborts the landing attempt as, right at the most critical second of time, serious winds and ground turbulence upset the flight. In other situations, the weather isn't so forgiving or the pilots not so lucky.

So, having read about all these difficulties, should you be wary of flying? Of course not—worrying about the safety of your aircraft is just plain silly. Airliners are exquisitely designed for safety. Air crew are highly trained. Critical systems are backed up in duplicate, and in some cases in triplicate or more. Jet engines are impact-tested with frozen birds, structural testing of prototypes takes place until they are destroyed by the extremes of the test—far beyond anything they'll encounter in flight.

Flying is and has long been one of the safest forms of's just that the rare and surprising loss of two hundred people in one accident is terrifically sad, which is why the Yemen and Brazilian events hit the headlines. As more and more flights take off each year, accidents will continue to occur. You just have to put them into the right perspective. And here is that perspective: a video of every global flight in a single day. Think of the millions of people aboard who fly without incident.

[via The New York Times, Suite101]

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